Growing up as a P.K. (pastor’s kid) in the 60’s and 70’s, I had always thought a “calling” was reserved for “full-time Christian service work” like pastors or missionaries. The rest of us simply chose other careers and served God through our work in the church! I eventually learned how wrong I was about that as I began to develop a biblical worldview and realized that all aspects of life – including our vocations – are meant to glorify God.
I came to believe that a “calling” is determined by the intersection of our interests, our strengths and talents, and our discernment of where God is leading us. I call this “the want to, the can do and the led to” of your life. Importantly, it is also the way we can best serve God and fulfill His purposes for us and His kingdom. Though it wasn’t always so clear at the time, upon reflection, my “calling” to business followed this model. I was drawn to it and motivated to make money through creative efforts, even as a young girl. I would hold puppet shows, magic shows, perform music, sell cookies and lemonade and even hold sporting events in the neighborhood! My parents noted this regularly in our family Christmas cards! This entrepreneurial interest didn’t come to an end as I grew up.
When I did, eventually, take a job in business, I was surprisingly successful in it, even early on in my career -- and without formal business training at the time. The same skills and abilities I had honed in education (the first 5 years after college) seemed easy for me to transfer to sales. And there were many times where I most definitely saw God’s hand leading me in the process. So, although I certainly worked hard and put in long hours, my successes were definitely not only of my own doing.
There were a number of women in business back then and even a few in sales, like me. However, as I experienced success and my career advanced, there seemed to be fewer and fewer women as peers. At first, I didn’t really think that much of it -- perhaps this was simply the case in the beverage business or at my company. But it began to nag at me. While in the first part of my business career, I didn’t really see that my gender was a factor, I certainly didn’t feel that way anymore. Where were all the female leaders? I began to read the research and pay more attention to those who were speaking up on the subject. The risk of being labeled a “feminist” seemed a small price to pay.
As I began to study this more intentionally, I learned that the numbers of women graduating from college are actually greater than men and that women are fully half of the professional workforce in U.S. Fortune 500 companies, yet the percentages fall off dramatically in leadership roles. (It also appeared to be the case in medicine, politics, law and in the church, though I hadn’t studied those professions). If 50 percent of the professional workforce were women, why weren’t there more female leaders? Were they simply not as gifted, motivated or “called” to lead? Did they simply choose not to hold leadership roles at work once they had children, or were there other factors at play?
And the Research Says…
About five years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a summary of the latest research on this subject in an article called “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership.” The stated problem was that while women occupied 40% of all managerial positions in the U.S., they held just 6% of the Fortune 500’s top executive positions and just 2% of CEO’s. They concluded that this was not due to the notion of a “glass ceiling,” but stemmed from discrimination operating at all ranks, not just the top. This was evidenced in men being promoted more quickly than women, in general, even with equivalent qualifications and in traditionally female settings, such as nursing and education.
The Top 3 Barriers to women holding Leadership Roles Are:
- Resistance to Women’s Leadership
In a nutshell, they described how people (men and women) often viewed successful female managers as more pushy, selfish and abrasive than successful male managers. For example, when a strong male leader expressed his anger, he was seen as passionate and assertive. But when a strong female leader demonstrated similar behavior, she was seen as difficult, abrasive…and worse!
- Leadership Style Differences
This was explained as the challenge many female leaders struggle with to reconcile the qualities people prefer in women (such as compassion for others) with qualities people think leaders need to succeed (such as assertion and control). Add to that the relatively few female role models in leadership positions, and the likelihood that they are the sole female member on a team, and it’s easy to understand the problem. (I could relate.)
- Family Demands
This barrier focused on the fact that women are still most often the ones who interrupt their careers to handle work/family trade-offs. Even when children are grown, women tend to be the primary caretakers of the extended family. This can overload them and may be compounded as they often lack time to engage in the professional social networking essential to advancement. (This last point should not be overlooked. While women are often more skilled at family relationships, men tend to have the advantage in building business relationships).
The article included specific recommendations for both companies and women to help address these issues on multiple fronts. I found their insights to be fact-based, comprehensive and applicable beyond business and I worked with my company to help them address the barriers they faced.
In 2008, at the prompting of a small but committed group of female leaders in our company, our CEO chartered a 15 member “Global Women’s Leadership Council” to help our company better understand and address this leadership opportunity on a global basis. They now have an objective in every business unit around the world to “attract, develop and retain women, especially in leadership roles” with specific action plans to do so. Because 80% of their business is outside of the U.S., this is a far reaching effort, but one that is critical to our company’s long-term success.
I also examined my own hidden prejudices and poor management practices. I began, more intentionally, to understand and value different leadership and communication styles among my peers and colleagues and committed to becoming a more visible and positive role model and mentor to other women (and men too!).
- 1. Aspire to leadership – you can and should be leaders…everywhere.
- 2. Know your strengths, gifts and talents, and use them in your work.
- 3. Learn to bring meaning to your work (versus getting meaning from your work) by understanding why it is important to God and to others.
- 4. Trust and wait on God’s timing and direction in life’s big decisions.
- 5. Marry someone who sees you as their equal and encourages you to be the best you can be!
Although women have made some great strides in the U.S. over the past century, sadly, this is still not the case in many developing countries of the world. Did you know that women perform two-thirds of the world’s work, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own just 1% of the world’s property? The injustices that women face in many countries around the world can make our leadership problems here in the U.S. seem somewhat trite. Thankfully, there are many organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that have begun to tackle the underlying prejudices and power struggles that fuel these inequities. One of the best examples of such an organization that I’ve found is World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that is dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. Their most recent fund-raising effort in support of addressing these gender-based issues is called “Strong Women, Strong World.” Be sure to take a look at their ad in this issue of TwoTen Magazine to learn more about how you can support their work in this area.
In summary, the lack of women in leadership roles is, at its core, a complex, talent development issue. But solving it will unleash a powerful and lasting source of creative talent (for both women and men, by the way) that can and will benefit all institutions.
Bonnie Wurzbacher has held various executive and global leadership roles at The Coca-Cola Company in sales, marketing and management, rising to Senior Vice President, Global Customer & Channel Leadership. Bonnie is currently engaged as a Senior Advisor to World Vision, the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world, working in over 100 countries to tackle the causes of poverty and injustice. She and her husband, Steve, have homes in Atlanta and Texas and one son, Daniel, who is married to the former Jessica Fry.Read More Articles by Bonnie Wurzbacher